Monopolies are hideous with cellphones. We know this. But they’re disastrous with food. Because food, seeds, aren’t just any other commodity. Now the refrain around the system has been, this is the only way we can feed our growing population. If this is true, if this is how we feed the world, then why are 15% of American households struggling to put food on the table while at the same time 40% of our food is thrown away? Availability of food does not equal access.
Now add to this research from the NGO Bioversity International that shows a narrowing of variety in our diets coupled with an increase in nutritionally poor processed foods has contributed to the global epidemic of malnutrition. That shows up as both hunger and obesity. Globally more people now die from too much food rather than too little of it.
So if the stories of seeds are the stories of us what we have to ask ourselves is what seeds are we planting? And how do we nourish the seeds we want to grow? Monocultures and monopolies are only part of our seed story. And the seeds that I want to nurture are outside of the system. They’re the small holder farmers that still feed around 70% of the world’s population. Most of their food is grown from peasant-bred seed passed down over generations and grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers. Most of these farmers are women and they live in developing countries. And these ladies breed around 5,000 domesticated crops and they’re the keepers of not only the seeds but the indigenous wisdom about growing seeds and cooking what the seeds bring forth.
They have sustained an exponentially higher degree of agricultural biodiversity and soil fertility than what industrial agriculture affords. And this fills me with hope. These incredible, inspiring people working hard to ensure the security and sovereignty of our seeds and the land on which our seeds are grown. Farmers, gardeners, scientists, policy makers, activists, chefs and all of us. Yes, this is where we come in. Because as Wendell Berry so eloquently reminds us, eating is an agricultural act.
Agriculture started about 10,000 years ago. The loss of most crop varieties has happened in the last 100-odd years. And the consolidation of the proprietary seed market has taken root in the last 20. In the long trajectory of how we fed ourselves these changes are so new. They’re changes that we can come back from. We can plant new seeds. And this is what we do when we take time to learn about and support the people and institutions engaged in seed conservation in seed banks on farms and in the wild. Or when we buy crazy heirloom varieties we’ve never seen before at the farmers market knowing farmers can’t grow what we won’t eat. This is what happens when we cook something new. In essence eating plants, eating foods to save them. And this is what happens when we save seeds and when we share them.
For most of my life seeds were what I spit out. Even after I had spent decades working on environmental issues, just owning it. Even after I spent years living in Kansas, the bread basket of America, I hadn’t really thought about our seed system. And then one day at an early morning farmers market a farmer that I knew looked me in the eye, pressed seeds into my hands and said, “Grow these.” And I was in awe, I have to tell you. These seeds were so small. I was in awe. Because I hadn’t considered what could grow from something so small.
So I planted the seeds. They were my first. And then I watched them like a hawk. And then nothing happened. I got really impatient. For a couple of weeks nothing seemed to be happening and I was on the verge of giving up on my seeds. And then like a miracle a shoot came up through the earth. And it grew and grew and grew. The potential of these gorgeous purple stalks of amaranth that grew taller than me and to my delight and horror took over half my yard originated in seeds the size of a dot on a page. This is how change happens.
As artist Marian Spedone says, “Like seed, all is contained within us.” All future possibilities, all growth, all knowing. So we plant the seeds with every decision we make as eaters, farmers, chefs, scientists, we plant the seeds, knowing that when we make these choices we set in motion a trajectory for food and farming that gives life to a different way of feeding ourselves and starts a ripple effect that extends far beyond our plates.